If you're new to the world of financial aid and college admissions, filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA form) can seem like a daunting task. After all, your financial aid package will be determined based on the information you submit, so you want to take care to do everything right.
We caught up with some college financial aid advisors for tips to avoid mistakes and maximize your aid eligibility. Here's what you need to know.
First Off, Fill It OutEven if you don't think you'll qualify for financial aid, you still should file your FAFSA. You may be pleasantly surprised to find that you qualify for some aid, or at least for federally subsidized student loans that have lower interest rates than most private loans. Because the cost of paying for college is high, even higher-income families may qualify for some types of assistance.
Watch Out For Costly Errors"An incorrect social security number can have a ripple effect on whether information gets linked with all colleges to which the student has applied," warns Kevin Michaelsen, Director of Financial Assistance at Meredith College, a women's institution in Raleigh, N.C. "It can be difficult to clear up the issue and may require completion of a new FAFSA form." This error occurs more often than you'd think, says Michaelsen, noting that he's seen parents mistakenly enter a social security number for a different family member. Other common mistakes include inputting the wrong number of household members or using the wrong tax figures.
Have All Of Your Financial Information ReadyAlthough you do have the option to estimate income tax information, it's better if you can file your tax return earlier so that your numbers are up-to-date and accurate. In addition to your tax return, you should also keep relevant bank statements, investment records, and other asset information on file. If you're applying online, you'll need to apply for a Student Aid PIN to start your application. It can take from one to three days to receive your PIN.
Stick To the DeadlinesThe earliest you can file your FAFSA is after January 1st of your senior year of high school. Schools and state grant programs have varying deadlines. Find the earliest deadline imposed by any of the schools you're considering and don't miss it, advises Pat Watkins, Director of Financial Aid for Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla. Watkins recommends that students list all of the colleges they are considering on their FAFSA. By not doing so, you may miss out on some scholarships that have limited funds and are offered on a "first come, first served" basis to eligible candidates. "Some applicants are concerned that their admission to a college may be jeopardized if they apply for financial aid," Watkins states. "This is not the case. Admission to the college is made regardless of ability to pay."
Don't Pay For Someone To Fill It Out For YouThere are many consultants and services that will offer assistance with financial aid applications for a fee, but you can get free help if you know where to look. "Your [college] financial aid administrator can assist you at no charge," says Jill Nutt, Director of Financial Aid at Hope College in Holland, Mich. Other sources of help include your high school college counselor, the FAFSA on the Web worksheet and other free Web resources that can walk you through the application.
Plan To File Every YearYou must file the FAFSA annually, since there may be changes to your adjusted gross income or other financial factors impacting your aid eligibility, says Beth Cragar, Associate Dean of Admission for Financial Aid at Sewanee: The University of the South. "Capital gains and pension/IRA withdrawals have surprised many families when they apply for aid after [students'] freshman year."
1. Interview with Beth Cragar, Assistant Dean of Admission for Financial Aid at Sewanee: The University of the South, conducted by Dawn Papandrea, OnlineColleges.com, May 15, 2014
2. Interview with Jill Nutt, Director of Financial Aid at Hope College, conducted by Dawn Papandrea, OnlineColleges.com, May 15, 2014
3. Interview with Kevin Michaelson, Director of Financial Assistance at Meredith College, conducted by Dawn Papandrea, OnlineColleges.com, May 15, 2014
4. Interview with Pat Watkins, Director of Financial Aid at Eckerd College, conducted by Dawn Papandrea, OnlineColleges.com, May 15, 2014